Working with people that make music can be challenging. We all know the horror stories of famous artists making demands in the studio too crazy to be taken seriously, or arguing over mundane things. Some days in the studio seem like straight out of Spinal Tap.
If you wanna see an example of egos being maxed out and studio/band psychology, check out Metallica’s ‘Some Kind of Monster‘ documentary. It follows the band while they’re making their ‘St. Anger’ album. Quickly you realise this is a dysfunctional band nowhere near capable of recording an album. It’s like a pressure cooker just waiting to explode. After a while, the band’s management calls in a “performance-enhancing coach”, by the name of Phil Towle to make amends and get the band working together creatively again.
Lars Ulrich having a friendly conversation with James Hetfield
This is of course an exaggerated example, but these kinds of situations do happen. Knowing how a band fits together can make the difference between an album that’s finished, and one that ends with despair halfway through the recording process. That being said, relationships between band members are one thing, but the relationship between the producer and the band equally if not more important.
Gaining common ground
Years ago I was working with a band that had really promising songs. I listened to them at home, and got really inspired by their songs, so all kinds of ideas started popping up in my head. I wrote them down. When it was time for preproduction I met them at rehearsal. The mistake I made, was instantly trying to change the things about the songs that I had written down. This resulted in them being overwhelmed by all the changes I wanted to make, so they didn’t want to continue the project. They felt I didn’t see share their view of the finished product, since I wanted to change so much immediately.
Looking back, I should have had a conversation first about my intentions with the project, and listened to their idea of the final product. Getting some common ground about where the project is going is always a good start.
Producer Phil Spector in the studio, who isn’t such an easy going guy himself
Trusting each other
It’s all about the trust between the producer and the artist. The trust that your ideas are ultimately going to make a better record. This takes time to develop, but it’s also an attitude thing. By the way, trust between an artist and a producer works both ways. If you’re shooting down every idea that someone has because you don’t think it’ll fit the music, it can be very hard to create that kind of trust. Dave Fridmann said in the Working Class Audio podcast that, he doesn’t really reject ideas anymore. It’s just easier to try them out and see if it’ll work. It takes less time to record that idea than to argue about it. Remember: in the end it’s their record.
If you wanna see a great example of an artist-producer relationship look at the video below of Michael Jackson working with Quincy Jones. You can see Michael being slightly nervous about recording (also because there’s a camera there). Quincy works through the different takes quickly, giving encouragement when needed, and quickly trying it again when the take is not yet right. Keep in mind that this was recorded in the era of tape, so Quincy is working with a tape-op at lightning speed (and punching in at the wrong track or wrong time meant disaster). The encouragement given when Michael is in the zone is quick and to the point.
It sounds really cheesy, but because they trust each other it works great! They’re able to record quickly, with minimal hassle. Of course there is a lot more to it, when you’re collaborating in a complex project. But if the trust isn’t there, there’s not much to work with, and you’ll have to address that first.